Under the intensity of a prolonged pandemic, the world finds an ever-growing and seemingly never-ending waste stream of used surgical masks, plastic face shields, and medical gloves and gowns. Cornell engineers now offer a solution to sustainably reroute the discarded material. A medium-temperature reaction called pyrolysis can reduce the plasticized medical-protection garb back into an original form – such as chemicals and petroleum – and then recycle it, perhaps into fuels, according to a new study.
The method involves no incineration or landfill use. “The scale of disposing used medical personal protective equipment (PPE) is enormous,” said Xiang Zhao, a doctoral student and an author on the paper. “Fast pyrolysis is proven to effectively convert waste PPE into value-added products. The pyrolysis method can replace PPE incineration or sending it to landfills, which is what happens now.”
Zhao, working with his advisor Fengqi You, the Roxanne E. and Michael J. Zak Professor in Energy Systems Engineering, in the Smith School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, published the proposed technology framework, “Energy and Environmental Sustainability of Waste Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) Treatment Under COVID-19,” in January in the journal Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews. Their framework – first focusing on New York state – proposes collecting waste PPE from hospitals and medical centers, and then sending it to pre-processing and decontamination facilities in New York or Suffolk counties. There, it would be shredded, sterilized and dehydrated to become small particles, and then brought to an integrated pyrolysis plant, like one contemplated for Rockland County, north of New York City.